I'm usually a pretty cheerful guy but every once in a while I get depression to the point where I can barely function. I fell into it in a bad way last September. It hit me again about a week ago and I've been struggling with it since.
I've never been diagnosed so I don't know if I have capital-D clinical Depression or not. I've never had to take antidepressants in order to function. I have friends who have needed medication, and I don't want to trivialize their experience by suggesting it must be just like mine. I'm just lucky I haven't had it as bad as them. I can only speak for what's going on in my own head.
It's worse than just being in a bad mood or feeling crappy; it's like a switch in my head gets flipped and suddenly I'm in a world where there's no possibility that anything good will happen, ever again. I become incapable of even imagining happiness or enjoyment.
Depression takes away my motivation to do anything. It makes me not want to do things that I usually enjoy. It reminds me that all human endeavor is futile and everything will come to dust in the end, so there is no point in doing anything. It becomes especially hard to work on long-term projects like coding or writing or studying Chinese, but even fun activities that usually provide immediate gratification, like playing accordion or painting minis, lose their appeal. That's what makes it different from an ordinary low mood. It's like there's a wellspring of positive energy that usually rewards me for doing things I like, and I've been cut off from it. Severed, like when the bad guys in The Golden Compass cut children off from their daemons.
The depression doesn't start randomly; it's triggered by some event or realization. The current bout started when I read that Arctic sea ice reached its lowest recorded level this summer, and that we're currently on track for 6-degree-celsius global warming by 2100. (I'll blog about that some other time.) This was compounded by hearing that there's now a good chance Romney might win the election and put the climate-change denialists back in power; together it makes me think that our political system is utterly incapable of facing up to the coming environmental catastrophe or doing anything to stave off the global food shortages that are going to come with it.
But whatever triggers it, once it starts, depression is self-sustaining. Depression will use anything it can find to make me stay depressed. It takes the news about global warming and politics and forces them into the most pessimistic possible interpretation. Anything bad must be true; anything good must be fake. Depression likes to remind me that I, and everybody I know, will die someday, and will be dead forever, and that there's no reason to believe in any kind of afterlife. It points out that I'm already 32 and haven't achieved my dreams; it tells me that now it's too late, I'm too old, I failed, and my life will be all downhill from here. I'm unemployed and my ideas for starting a business will never work out. Also, in a few billion years, the sun will go red giant and consume the earth, and after that all the stars will go out, and eventually even protons and black holes decay, and the universe will suffer entropic heat death.
When I'm deep in it, depression makes me not want to get better. It makes me not want to do things that would make me happy, almost like it's a parasite that will fight to prevent being removed from its host. It makes me want to indulge in more negative thoughts, providing a grim satisfaction when I think of more reasons why everything is horrible.
And this self-destructive impulse always masquerades as rationality. It's not a mood, it's not a mental illness: it's a rational appraisal of a reality where everything is objectively horrifying. Or that's what it tells me, anyway. When cutting off my motivation it tells me that my desire to do things was irrational: logically there's no reason to do anything, not when global civilization is about to collapse from food and oil shortages and we're all going to die. Happiness is an illusion anyway, so logically there's no reason to want to be happy.
When I'm depressed, I can barely talk to anybody; depression makes me want to avoid people, and when I have to talk to somebody it's a struggle to get the words out. I avoid eye contact and have long pauses in my speech and what I manage to get out is only the barest approximation of what I'm really feeling. I think this is another way the parasite fights for its own survival -- it knows that human contact is part of the cure, so it tries to prevent me from getting any.
There's also this weird thing that happens where I feel guilty about being depressed. After all, other people have it much much worse than I do. I've been extremely lucky in my life; I've had a lot of privileges; I've never faced any real hardship. I don't deserve to be depressed when other people are missing limbs or getting shot at or facing abject hopeless poverty or dying of cancer. So I get into this guilt/depression death spiral, and after a week I'm not depressed about the original triggering event so much as I'm depressed about the fact of being depressed! And I feel like I shouldn't tell anybody about it because I'd be violating some kind of imaginary social contract by admitting to depression.
So that's what my depression feels like. Here are some things I've been doing lately to try to pull myself out of it.
First, I think of it like an actual disease. When I've got a flu I don't try to pretend everything is OK, nor do I let the flu rule my life. I change my habits to try to help myself get better - drinking lots of hot fluids, getting lots of sleep, etc.
In this post I've been talking about depression as an external thing -- "Depression does this, depression does that" -- because I've found that's the key to fighting it. This is silly, but I visualize it as like a ghostly grey parasite creature that clings on to my chest and feeds off my bad feelings. Sometimes I can feel it there, pressing down on my lungs like a physical weight. But like a flu, I don't think of it as part of myself; it's a thing that I've got, temporarily.
That way when I wake up each morning feeling like "ugggggggh humanity is doomed life is pointless why should I get out of bed" I can respond "No, that's the depression talking". By imagining it as external to myself, I can turn and face the enemy.
I can't deny that the world is screwed up and bad things are happening. If I try to deny it, the depression always wins that argument. Trying to "logic" depression away doesn't work.
But what I can do is say "look, maybe my chances of doing anything to improve my life or make the world a better place are 0.00001% under the best of circumstances. But as long as I'm depressed my chances are absolute zero. If there's any path to anything better, it has to start with getting myself un-depressed."
Sushu has been wonderfully loving and supportive through this thing, helping talk me through stuff, getting me out of the house, holding me to my goals, and just being there for me. I am relying on her a lot.
Next, I try not to be alone with my thoughts for long periods. I force myself to get out of the house and talk to people. This is harder now that I don't have a job, because I don't have an office to go to or a time that I have to be there every day. But I've been using a local coffee shop (Philz on Middlefield Road) as a substitute office, going there every morning to work.
I've been making myself reach out via email and instant message to people I haven't spoken to in a long time.
I'm avoiding triggers. The trigger for this spell of depression was reading about global warming and politics so I'm forcing myself not to read any more articles about those things for a while.
I'm setting some modest, not-too-difficult goals. I worked with Sushu to define the next milestone for the Chinese study game, and set a due date of next Wednesday. She's going to help hold me to that.
I try to recognize the signs of a mental death spiral, and refuse to indulge in it. "Nope, not going to think about that right now" , I say, and distract my attention to something else.
Finally, I remind myself that it's OK to do pointless things just to make myself feel better; I think of them as a form of self-medication. Playing games with friends is good! To play a game is to care intensely about something (the goal of the game) even though it doesn't matter in the big scheme of things. Reminding myself what it feels like to care about things is essential to climbing out of depression.
I don't have a great conclusion to go there; this is an ongoing process. I welcome anybody reading this to share their experiences of depression and what they've done to try to combat it.